SAN ANTONIO — Eleven seasons into this frantic NBA career as a two-legged entry in a demolition derby, Manu Ginobili is long past the point where dented fenders, a dragging muffler and wheels spinning right off the axles should have him sitting as a heap of spare parts off in some corner.
After all, El Contusion is as much a straight description as it is a nickname.
Yet here are the Spurs heading into the stretch run of another season trying to hold onto the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference with a 35-year-old guard who might as well be held together himself with baling wire and duct tape.
A sprained ankle has Tony Parker sidelined for maybe a month and that means the Spurs’ crutch as they head into a showdown tonight against Kevin Durant and the Thunder is suddenly a guy whose minutes played over the past two seasons are the fewest since his rookie year.
Never mind the previous hints about the end of the road. He’s not going anyplace but hellbent right into the teeth of whatever defense thinks it can finally rope him in.
If you ask him, he’ll tell you that the little things are felt more by that body that’s been recklessly thrown all over basketball courts from Argentina to Spain to every corner in the NBA, which is why he has to keep a closer eye on his rest and his diet and his stretching exercises.
But if you watch him, your eyes will tell you that very little has changed about the way he plays, which is a good and necessary thing for the Spurs.
While the delivery by Tim Duncan, who’ll turn 37 in April, at an All-Star level has been a revelation, there was at least reason to expect that The Big Fundamental and his earthbound game could push the limits to extend his career.
Ginobili, on the other hand, never figured to fade softly into a twilight. He’s always been more of a total eclipse guy, where one day the lights would simply go out.
When Ginobili signed his two-year contract in the summer of 2011, he told an Argentinian website that it seemed like that would take him to an “appropriate age to stop playing.”
However, he has seen the Spurs finish with the best record in the West the past two years, extend their excellence this season to stubbornly hold open the window of opportunity to add another championship and now Ginobili is saying he we would like to play two more seasons. The timetable fits perfectly with the contracts of Duncan and Parker, which expire in 2015 and could probably expect that to go out together in silver and black, he’d probably give the Spurs a “hometown discount” similar to his buddy Tim.
Of course, that all comes before potentially another two-month grind of the intense, rugged playoffs, fraught with the possibility that a human pinball could again do something to make his body go “tilt.”
Ginobili has been labeled increasingly fragile as the years have piled up, but that hardly seems as apt as just plain stubborn. Like the words from the Jacob Riis philosophy of “pounding the that rock” that adorn the halls leading to the Spurs’ locker room at the AT&T Center, eventually even the strongest substance will crack. Ginobili has simply been willing to hammer away at his own bones and ligaments and joints to point of breakdown.
“I’d rather play with someone like him, who plays hard and gets hurt, than someone who is afraid,” teammates Stephen Jackson said recently.
Various aches and ailments forced Ginobili to miss 16 games a year ago and 13 this season. Yet when he’s been on the floor, he’s been more than just respectable. While his field goal percentage (.448) and range from behind the 3-point line (.373) might appear pedestrian, his true shooting percentage is actually higher than the All-Star Duncan’s and he among the top three Spurs with a defensive efficiency rating of 99 points allowed per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor. As the minutes have increased out of necessity, so has his production.
In the four games since Parker was carried off the court on March 1, Ginobili has , shot 23-for-44 from the field and dealt 30 assists. He’ll continue to come off the bench, but will be the one running the offense at crunch-time and will also be called on for more scoring as the Spurs hit a stretch of schedule that after tonight will include a gantlet of the Nuggets, Clippers, Heat and at Memphis and at OKC a little over three weeks.
His fearless style has always kept the x-ray and MRI machines humming, yet the way he’s kept coming back from all of those injuries is one of the main reasons the Spurs have continued to push their time as championship contenders past their expiration date as declared by the experts. If those bursts of imaginative artistic brilliance don’t last as long, they can still come often enough to make the difference when the clock runs down and a game or a playoff series or a season might be on the line.
There will ultimately come a time when those wheels finally come off Manu Ginobili, but for now and, it seems two more years, he’ll keep the Spurs rolling.